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Where the streets have new names
 

By Oliver August.

14 July 2007
Financial Times

Things in this Chinese boomtown are changing so quickly that Oliver August needs a new map every time he returns.

I think of her as a woman. She isn't dark-haired and slender like the ones on the street. Xiamen is a blonde - tall and fleshy and permed as if straying from Raymond Chandler books. She is a broad. She lolls around, saying my name between puffs on long-tipped cigarettes. She drives her daddy's sports car, too fast.

At least that's what I tell friends when they ask me why I spend so much time in Xiamen. To say the city has white, palm-fringed beaches isn't enough. Everyone knows typhoons disturb the sunny breeze. What I love about this city is more visceral. I have been coming here for years and eventually decided to rent a place. Perhaps I could claim a piece of it for myself.

Xiamen is a Chinese boomtown. If that conjures up Dickensian images of sweatshops and shantytowns, you're not wrong. Hopes and riches bubble up as they once did on east Texan oilfields. Private interests fuse and sometimes clash with state priorities. High-tech plants mingle with factories while legions of migrant workers, known as the "blind tide", or mangliu, pour in from the hinterland. Along the way, these new residents reinvent themselves, developing urban aspirations and a lust for living.

Alas, it isn't just the former farmers who are changed by coming to Xiamen. The city is too. It adapts constantly to the needs and preferences of new arrivals, shaped by successive waves like sandbanks in tidal seas. The results can be confounding. When I first came here, I would buy a map on arrival, and then throw it away as soon as I left. Maps are out of date within months. Publishers print new editions four or six times a year. The city is changing that fast. A year on, whole districts are unrecognisable.

Holding on to an old map means risking disaster. Travellers mostly avoid asking for directions on the street. Someone a block from my destination once told me: "Oh, that's a department store, the really tall building? I hadn't looked at it." People have not yet made the town their own. I like that. It puts me at ease. The migrants are just as alien as I am. Perhaps it is preposterous to think so - they are, after all, Chinese. Yet, their Mandarin is often no better than mine. They speak in simple sentences, having only just left behind their local dialects.

Thus I became a resident of Xiamen, at least unofficially. I do not have a residence permit. But then neither do half the population. The old hukou registration system has withered in a dusty place, mummified beyond recognition. Most months I travel back and forth across China, earning a living. When I return, I find that no matter how short my absence, I have to discover Xiamen anew. Familiar streets are foreign within weeks. Clusters of houses vanish along with their inhabitants, entire blocks of Mao era dwellings disappear overnight, replaced by skyscrapers and shopping malls that appear to be erected in months. Whole boulevards are moved and public parks come and go seemingly at a whim. Right in front of me, a vast urban experiment is being conducted, all ardour and annihilation. Over the years, I feel I have never seen the same city twice. Xiamen is a perpetual frontier, a mixed metaphor come true. Just add water while you dance on the volcano.

However, when I ask ordinary residents about this revolution in their midst, many just shrug. It is of no great concern to them. They do not rejoice in their city as I do. Approvingly, I describe Xiamen as wild, dishonest and dangerous, even a little mad. They give me blank looks. That is not the sort of place they want to live in. When asked, they have little to say about what sort of place they prefer. Instead, they talk about their families. Will their children have better lives than they had? That matters.

They also talk about history. The past seems very much present to them, even as they reinvent every last scrap of their physical surroundings in the pursuit of betterment. Some still use pre-revolution, pre-reform era street names. Others reconstitute old or demolished neighbourhoods in modern surroundings, social networks intact. They pride themselves on the fact that their civilisation, though hurt severely, marches on. From history's depths now re-emerges a reverence for learning, a focus on family and a predilection for expressing personal ambition through wealth.

"Are you from here?" I once asked a woman in the lift of my apartment building. "No. Nobody is really from here," she said over rhythmic pinging floor by floor. "I was born in Sichuan. My son was born here though, last month. He will go to university." Before I got out on my floor, I told her my brother would be having a child soon, too. His son would be born any day now. "I will become an uncle for the first time," I said. "Wonderful," the woman said, "you will get a promotion."

In Xiamen that is a perfectly normal thing to say. The city's inhabitants may be beaten by bosses and cheated by crooks. Their muscles, lungs and brains may fray in industrial plants. But not before they have secured betterment for their families. Nothing can shake that aim. Nobody will die like their parents. They will all get promotions, no matter how hard they have to work. They will wen qian (make money), yezihuo (get rich) and lai cai (bring vegetables).

(c) Financial Times

 
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